As one of the country’s most versatile athletes (and one of the only athletes ever to have competed in both the Olympics and Paralympics), David Smith (MBE) is literally a real life Action Man, proving that whatever the physical, biological or psychological challenges, if you want to achieve something, you can. Having professionally competed in karate, sprinting, skiing, bobsleigh, rowing and more, he’s now turned his hand to cycling. Here, he tells all…
HOW CYCLING GAVE ME MY MOJO BACK
Most people go looking for sports but for me it was the other way around. They almost found me, and often at the right time. Cycling, for example, was a natural progression after rowing ended. I’d done a lot of bike training whilst rowing and, when that ended, I returned home to Aviemore, opened my garage and there was a bike. I’d spent all winter skiing and hiking in the mountains but the snow was melting and everybody was beginning to cycle. One day, my friend said ‘Let’s go and ride up the mountains where we skied.’ Having discovered the bike, I thought ‘Let’s do it.’ So I jumped on and 10 hours and 160 miles later, I thought ‘This sport’s amazing. I want to pursue it.’ I’ve done so many sports so it’s hard to pick a favourite but I’m glad that cycling and I found each other. It’s given me a real zest for life.
ON CYCLING BEING THE EASIEST SPORT TO TRANSITION TO…
Other than the weight loss aspect (>15kg), transitioning from rowing to cycling was the easiest one to make. Through rowing, you build a massive aerobic endurance base and an intense mental tenacity. It’s one of the most psychologically tough sports, purely because of the monotonous training. Everyday, you sit on the rowing machine looking at a wall or spend all day travelling backwards down a lake. There’s little variety but it provided the perfect mental and physical preparation to transition into cycling.
ON BEING AN ATHLETE…
I love sport, especially skiing and cycling in the mountains, the sense of freedom. I never wanted to be an athlete to win gold medals. That’s probably why I’ve done so many different sports. I never wanted to compete in 5 Olympics and be 5 times Olympic Champion. The biggest attraction was to be an athlete who enjoyed being outdoors and pushing the body, to have new adventures and experience different sports; and I’m really happy I’ve done that. I don’t have all of the medals and credentials that other athletes have but I’ve seen and experienced so much more. I know what it’s like to drive a bobsleigh; to ski down the Championship slopes; fight black belt karate; and row and cycle all around the world.
‘I’ve always loved sports and being outdoors. Your body is meant to move. Enjoy it.’
LOOK AROUND… INSPIRATION IS EVERYWHERE
As athletes, we often get branded as ‘inspirations’ but we’re lucky; we’re doing what we love. For me, the truly inspirational people are those who don’t do sport to win medals; they do it because they love it. You see guys who work 40-50 hour weeks and still find time to train for Iron Man. They cycle to work, swim during lunch breaks, run during weekends… it’s amazing. I watch a lot of YouTube clips of other athletes too – predominantly Paralympians and the challenges they’ve gone through. You see people swimming with no arms, doing archery… That always inspires me, not just because of their achievements but because it shows the body’s resilience to not giving up. It gives hope.
‘Transitioning from Olympic to Paralympic sport was one of the biggest surprises. How amazingly competitive these people are. Everybody always praises Olympians but look at these guys… they’ve lost arms, legs and more and they’re doing all of these incredible things at an amazingly high level. It surprises a lot of people the first time they attend the events but how fantastic.’
ON ADAPTIVE VS NON-ADAPTIVE SPORT…
One of the biggest minefields in Paralympic sports is classification. To the outsider, it’s difficult to explain because what does a disability look like? Is it physical, mental, functional? Just because a body part ‘looks’ like it’s working, that doesn’t actually mean that it is. It can even be a handicap. Take me, I have both legs, which to the eye look perfectly fine, but my left leg doesn’t work because of the neurological damage so I only cycle with one. Even though you see my left leg turning, it doesn’t contribute to the cycle revolution. Whereas, an athlete with a knee amputation drives all their power through their hips, quads and glutes so they’re actually more ‘able’ than I am, as I can’t use any of those muscles. To the eye, it appears differently and people think it’s unfair to make a person with both legs compete against one without one but, upon closer inspection, it’s not at all but that’s why cycling is grouped into different categories.
THE BIGGEST DISABILITY IS NOT PHYSICAL; IT’S IN YOUR MIND
In life, it’s easy to focus on what you can’t do, but imagine what you’d achieve if you realized what you can. That’s one of the reasons why sport is so amazing. When you meet any athlete, but especially Paralympians and they guys from the Invictus Games, they’re incredibly proactive and very much about ‘What can I do? It sets a great example that, actually, yes you can; and definitely rubs off on you.
When I woke up paralysed in hospital, I didn’t think ‘Oh no! I’m not going to ride again’, I thought ‘What can I do? How can I speed up my recovery.’ That’s definitely something that really separates us from most other people. I don’t focus on the injury, or walk around thinking ‘Right. I’ve got a paralysed leg and a paralysed arm.’ I think ‘What can I do today? How do I get back onto my bike? How can I ride?’ In a world that’s driven massively by physical appearance – whether that’s how you feel about yourself or how others perceive you - it’s refreshing. I’m not saying it’s easy, having a disability is challenging, but the great thing is that sport doesn’t discriminate. You see it in the Invictus, the Paralympics… ‘disabled’ people pushing their bodies to the limit, achieving things that most able-bodied people can't, or don't try to, do. It’s empowering.
'Having a passion and purpose in life is so important. It's what drives you to get up every morning, gives you hope and vitality.'
WHAT KEEPS ME GOING WHEN IT GETS TOUGH…
The passion to live. I’ve come so close to dying so many times so I know what it’s like to sit in an anaesthetic room, look around and think ‘This might be the last thing I’ll ever see… I might not survive and I might die here.’ When you’ve come that close to dying, it gives you a real appreciation of life. I realised that if you have a passion and a purpose, then you’ll get up every morning. As soon as you lose that, it becomes much harder to stay motivated and continue. Everyday, that drives me to keep going: I love life.
I have so many funny memories, especially from my time in hospital and with the British Skiing Team.
DID SOMEONE SAY ‘STOP’?!
One time, in Chile, as we were skiing down the slopes at the end of the day, Marc Poncin (the national coach) was signalling for me to stop but I didn’t realise. I thought he was saying ‘Go.’ The next thing I knew, I’d skied off a cliff and was hurtling through the air. Just before, I remember making eye contact with one of the Australians, Bud. We both looked into each other’s eyes and I can’t repeat what he said with them. He didn’t have to say anything, I could just tell. After falling down the cliff, bouncing over rocks and more, I finally came to land underneath a crevice but I was so far away from everyone; it took a 40-50min rescue mission to get me out of there. Looking back it was a really comical moment but at the time... the pain…
FRISKY FRANK: A POWERFUL MOTIVATOR OUT OF PARALYSIS
Out of all my sporting moments, the 4-5 months in hospital following my paralysis created so many hilarities. That was the one thing that got me through my time there. One of the funniest memories was thanks to an 83-year-old man called Frank. He had dementia and the nurses looked after him well but they couldn’t keep track of him all the time. One night, I woke to find him standing at the bottom of my hospital bed, massaging my feet, completely naked! He’d often leave his bed at 3-4am and go walking around naked, trying to steal things out of the cupboards – of course, I was lying in my bed paralysed at the time so to wake up and see this silhouette of Frank – with one hand ‘somewhere’ and his other hand massaging my foot – telling me that I had nice feet… Definitely one of the strangest, funniest moments.
TAKING THE BRIDGE THAT HASN’T BEEN BUILT YET (IN MORE WAYS THAN ONE!)
Another time, I was on tour with the British Sailing Team in Cadiz, Spain. I driving home with Mark Asquith, it was 3am, pitch black and all we had to get us home safely was the SatNav, which was completely useless! It was such an adventure because, one minute, we were on the right road, the next, there was no road at all. Eventually, we found ourselves on a dirt track all alone; it was telling us to go over the bridge but there was no bridge… it hadn’t even been built yet!
How I got invited was a funny story too because I was never on the Sailing Team. The summer before, Mark and I had been in rehab together when he asked what I was doing in December. I said ‘Nothing’ so he invited me to travel with him. I went on a 2 week training camp with them, helped drive vans and carry equipment, and had a great time. That’s one of the best things I’ve taken from sport: the friendships and the lesson that when opportunities come along, always say ‘Yes.’ It’s been an adventure.
MY FAVOURITE PLACES TO CYCLE
ITALY. I love Italy. It’s absolutely beautiful and racing there always feels very special. My first race after my second surgery was a closed-road time trial in Maniago with Zanardi. Paralympic cycling in is massive in Italy, largely because of him. The Italians love him so everyone came out to watch and, every time we passed through a village, the locals would line the streets.
THE MOUNTAINS. I love cycling in the mountains; it’s a beautiful experience. I recently climbed Mont Venteux, which was amazing, and I’m hoping to ride Les Grandes Deux Alpes soon. That’s brilliant because you cycle through 17 mountain passes down to Monaco. I like racing on the flats but when it comes to riding, the mountains are such a spiritual place. There’s a real reverence and energy about them - something to fear but be awestruck by. Standing at the bottom of the mountain, about to climb it, whether it’s on bike, skis or foot, you can’t help but be taken aback with respect for it. The mountain will always win but ascending it, especially cycling, is a real test of mental performance. There’s nothing like it.
I WISH I’D KNOWN SOONER…
How intertwined the physiological and psychological functionings of the body are, and what an important role nutrition plays in influencing them. Had I known, I’d certainly have started eating cleaner sooner, and tried to worry less. It’s something I’ve studied more in recent years, particularly on epigenetics and neuroplasticity. Research shows that there’s an extremely powerful epigenetic ability to change the structure of DNA cells; essentially meaning that thought becomes feeling, which then translates into being. Therefore, our thought processes literally have a physiological effect on our cells and, in terms of our bodies – what’s happened to mine or anybody else’s – it shows that we don’t always have to let medicine or nature take control over how healthy we are, or our recovery. Illnesses and so on will naturally take effect – that’s unavoidable – but we have power too, and can to a degree control how much of an effect they have on us. That resilience is definitely something I’ve seen in myself, and possibly an influential factor for why I’ve never given up or let any physical obstacles stop me from doing sports and achieving.
Did you know… If you think, or do, something 3 times, you can start to switch on billions of neurons in your mind, and begin to have an influence over them? That then influences your DNA and, consequently, you can manipulate your body, either to make yourself sick or make yourself better. It’s quite dangerous (or powerful) when you think about it.
Humans can have up to 90,000 thoughts a day. Our subconscious has little control over them; however our conscious mind does and, importantly, it’s something we’re able to control. Therefore, how we perceive a situation (i.e. negatively or positively; self-belief over doubt; fighting or giving up etc.) is up to us. The best analogy for this is: the subconscious is like a wild horse that can run mad if you let it, whereas your conscious mind is the horse whisper (who can control it). It’s good to exercise it, letting it run wild from time to time but if you don’t control it, it’s just going to burn out or run all over the place. When you realise that, and that you have that control, it can have a powerful effect on your wellbeing, health, even success.
‘I really enjoy working with Help For Heroes because, having been in similar situations, I feel like I can relate to them and help. I understand what it’s like to go from being fully fit, fully able, to losing your identity, being vulnerable, and what vulnerability looks like. Everybody struggles to some extent but, as an alpha male, admitting vulnerability is especially hard but it’s so important for moving forward. I know what that feels like on so many levels so, if I can make a difference, that’s great.’
There’s a homeless man who often sits outside my local Tesco. I always stop to give him food and have a chat but, despite seeing my arm in a sling, he didn’t realise that it’s paralysed. He’d obviously been thinking about it so one day he said ‘What you need to go and do is go and buy a tennis ball. Just squeeze it all day every day and your arm will start moving.’ It was really sweet and funny because he was genuinely trying to help. He asked what was wrong so I told him ‘Well, it’s paralysed’ but it’s interesting because, even though paralysis is relatively widely discussed, he had the same response as so many other people, saying ‘Oh but it will move again, won’t it?’ but no, it won’t. It’s very sweet that people care enough to give you advice though so I always listen, even if I don’t take it.
I LOVE COMPETING AGAINST… JACO VAN GASS
He’s a friend of mine, a phenomenal athlete and very hardy guy. Whilst serving in Afghanistan, he was blown up in RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade) and suffered life-changing injuries. Not only did he lose an arm, incur shrapnel damage on his leg and throughout his body, and undergo more than 20 surgeries, but he also died and came back to life twice; yet he never let that stop him and is currently training to mount the seven summits and the North and South Poles. He has to be one of the most fearsome competitors and my favourite person to cycle with because he’s a lot of fun but loves to win so it’s a fantastic challenge. I always took great satisfaction from racing him on the Majorcan hills.
MY FAVOURITE QUOTE
‘What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.’ Emerson. I like the message this sends. It’s very much about living in the moment and liking who you are now. People worry about the future or look back with regret, thinking ‘I wish I hadn’t done that’ or ‘I made this mistake’ but actually living in the moment is what makes us happy and, whether good or bad times, what gets us through any daily challenges is what’s within us.